St. Louis — Political custom demands that before every presidential debate, campaign aides must spend much time and energy "raising expectations" for their opponent. They will go on about how masterly a debater the opponent is, so as to fatten him or her up for a post-debate skewering (while hailing their own candidate as a genius-slayer).
Senator Barack Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, was providing this valuable service to reporters a few hours before Senator Joseph Biden's meeting with Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska on Thursday. "She is a great, great debater," Plouffe was insisting in the aisle of Biden's campaign plane. He added that "Governor Palin is one of the best debaters in American politics," at which point several of the reporters burst out laughing.
"No, really," he pleaded, and one reporter asked Plouffe if he was sure he meant just "American" politics and not "the whole of world politics" — or maybe even "the history of all recorded human engagement."
"She is Cicero in the Snow," quipped Biden's press secretary, David Wade, as the gathering broke up.
This expectation-setting exercise was striking for its self-parody, because it's hard to think of a presidential or vice-presidential candidate who entered a debate with lower expectations than Palin did on Thursday.
Clips from her recent serial interview with Katie Couric, particularly one featuring her assertion that Alaska's proximity to Russia bolstered her foreign policy experience, fast became YouTube classics. Her performance in the interview sparked serious heebie-jeebies among Republicans and led the McCain campaign to sequester her for intensive debate prep at the McCain home near Sedona, Arizona It also provided early trick-or-treating for the late-night comedians.
Noting that Palin was "getting ready" for the debate in Arizona, Jay Leno said, "I understand she knows all three branches of government now." Being in Arizona "really helped her on foreign policy," David Letterman said the same night, "because from Arizona she can see Mexico."
Her actual performance in the debate, then, was evaluated in the light of those expectations. She received quite a few good reviews, yes, but many of them keyed off her low bar ("Sarah Palin was supposed to fall off the stage," began an assessment in The Politico by Roger Simon, who gave Palin favorable marks).
Palin's brutal predebate period had threatened to banish her to that cruelest of fates in public life, the permanent punch line.
"There are certain people who once they become joke topics, they are forever joke topics," said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. According to Lichter, since McCain picked Palin to be his running mate on Aug. 29 until the debate, Leno and Letterman made her the butt of 180 jokes — or more than the other three principals on the two tickets combined in that period (16 jokes for Biden; 26 for Obama; and 106 for McCain). About a third of the Palin jokes came in the three days preceding the debate as damage grew from the Couric interview.
Of course, every nationally known politician will come under some late-night lampooning if they stick around long enough. Like all modern presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have sparked thousands of jokes. They often involve easily mocked assumptions (that, say, Clinton has uncontrolled appetites, or Bush is dumb), and will be counterbalanced by the serious news that all presidents make. In other words, presidents are inevitably caricatured but not totally defined by their comic canon-fodder value.
Likewise, it's important to differentiate between politicians who can live peacefully with (if not embrace) those things for which they are parodied. For instance, few public figures have been spoofed as vigorously as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Everything from her suspected ambition to her laugh has been fair game. Yet few would dismiss her as anything less than formidable. She's hardly defined by her foibles. In her presidential campaign, she did a fair job of getting in on the joke, laughing at herself in several settings and appearing with some of her top teasing tormenters (like Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" and Amy Poehler on "Saturday Night Live").
New-on-the-scene politicians are more prone to being overtaken by their parodies.
"Vice presidents can be particularly vulnerable," said Lichter, who mentions Vice President Dan Quayle as one who never fully recovered from the mockery that greeted his debut in 1988. It can also extend to running mates, like Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot's No. 2, who today is better remembered for his doddering debate performance in 1992 than his heroic career. Politicians at the center of sex scandals enter a particularly unforgiving punch-line purgatory. (You think Stewart or Conan O'Brien are ever going to talk about John Edwards, Gary Hart or Eliot Spitzer for their policy ideas?)
On the other hand, Vice President Dick Cheney has provided a lifetime supply of heart-attack and hunting-accident humor (such fun genres!), but will clearly go down as a serious, contentious and multidimensional figure in history. "There is a tipping point that politicians reach," said Bob Orben, who was head of White House speechwriting for Gerald Ford before writing comedy for the likes of Red Skelton and Dick Gregory.
Orben refers to America's "comedy establishment," which he said was much more powerful today than it was in Ford's day. "You only had to overcome Johnny Carson back then," he said, and "Saturday Night Live," too (Chevy Chase's portrayal of Ford as physically clumsy marked the reputation of Ford, a former college football player, forever).
Television comedians abound now, deal heavily in politics, and serve as a primary news source for many voters, particularly young ones. Jokes and monologues are disseminated live on TV and TiVo, gathered on Web sites, circulated by e-mail.
"Now, once popular culture gets a hold of you, your reputation can become a joke very, very fast," said Mike Brown, the former head of FEMA, who of course knows this painfully. Widely blamed for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Brown is something of a model for how permanent punch lines are made (resist "perfect storm" metaphor). He made his debut unsteadily on television and provided a rare bulls-eye for comic relief during an otherwise tragic circumstance. ("The most important evacuation was made today in New Orleans," Leno said at the time. "They got the head of FEMA, Mike Brown, out of there.")
Comics love fresh moose-kill. "Sarah Palin is so great because she brings in the potential for so many new kinds of jokes," Lichter said. "You don't have to do the same 'Bush is stupid,' 'Clinton is fat' or 'McCain is old' jokes," he said. "You can do something on how she is perky and attractive, or the lipstick on a pig line or whatever. You can almost feel her regenerating the comedy writers."
Palin also has the distinct advantage — or disadvantage — of looking a lot like "Saturday Night Live's" Tina Fey, which saddled her with an instant association with someone who is not to be taken seriously.
"Tina Fey was the first thing people thought of, which was not going to be good for her," said Orben. To wit, Letterman previewed Palin's debate performance with a Top 10 list of "Things Overheard at Palin Debate Camp" on Wednesday night.
Number One: "Any way we can just get Tina Fey to do it?"
Still, few were willing to declare that Palin had reached the point of no return. Before the debate, there was a certain amount of bipartisan support for the idea that she could redeem herself with a good performance.
"She might be reaching a point of self-caricature, but she can bring it all back tonight," said Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, outside the Washington University debate hall.
And to some eyes, she did just that.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a columnist for the conservative National Review, called her the big winner on Thursday and, more to the point, declared: "The big loser tonight was Tina Fey."
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